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Beyond Therapy

Playwright Christopher Durang ’71 blends comedy and cruelty.

By Hayley C. Cuccinello, Crimson Staff Writer

I’m sitting across from playwright Christopher F. Durang ’71 in a vinyl booth at New York City’s Utopia Diner on Amsterdam Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Street. It is a familiar venue for both of us. The diner is a few blocks away from my apartment building, which was once the residence of one of Durang’s oldest friends and most frequent collaborators, Sigourney Weaver. It’s almost as close to Lincoln Center Theater, where Durang’s latest play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is receiving its Broadway debut.

This 63-year-old playwright—known for his blending of cruelty and comedy, reality and satire—is surprisingly serene. “On the outside [Durang] is such a sweet, smiley man, and you would have no idea that his mind is filled with donuts and dead babies,” says Genevieve Angelson, who plays Nina in “Vanya.” Torture, stillbirth, and crises of faith are all landmarks of Durang’s dark terrain.  But a shift has occurred at the heart of this American absurdist’s work. Durang’s recent work exhibits a new optimism. “Vanya” ends with the three Chekhovian siblings—Vanya, Sonia, and Masha—swaying their heads in unison along to The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun.” The happy ending is a tenuous one given the dynamic between the siblings, and it is a self-consciously stark contrast to Chekhov’s typical treatment of his characters. But the positive tone is much more than a comment on Chekhov: it represents a new direction for Durang’s style.

I have always admired Durang’s ability to depict characters who respond to feelings of sadness verging on horror with a bark-like laugh rather than simple tears. His new work still lies at this nexus of pain and laughter, but the darker tenor that I was initially drawn to as a playwright and an audience member is lightening. Durang is far from the only dark comedian in contemporary theater. What’s made him special for me is his ability to blend the poignant, preposterous, and tragic in a single style while also investing his characters with his own vulnerability. How can his optimistic turn preserve this delicate balance? In order to understand the shift in Durang’s approach, I decided to meet the man himself to ask him what’s changed.

CATASTROPHIC THINKING

Durang eyes the book on which my recorder rests in order to muffle the clatter of silverware against the linoleum tabletop. “Lamont Library, Harvard University” is stamped across the pages of the book—a collection of his works. Durang, who struggled with depression that crippled his ability to write during his time at Harvard, now has a place on the shelves of his alma mater’s library.

Durang has come to terms with the depression that threatened his undergraduate career at Harvard. At the time he was struggling with the loss of his Catholic faith and the discovery of his homosexuality. His rocky childhood was another psychological battlefield. Durang was born to an alcoholic architect and a homemaker—both Catholic—in 1949 in New Jersey. Due to a blood incompatibility, his mother suffered through three stillbirths. “I didn’t know back then why I was depressed, but you know sometime in later therapy I realized that it was…from my parents not being able to stop arguing, not being able to figure out how to live together and similar things happening with my mother’s extended family,” Durang says. “I had this thing as a child—I’m not sure if mantra is the right word—but this unconscious thing that nothing ever works out.’”

It took until junior year at Harvard for him to begin conquering his demons. After a promising start, however, he relapsed into depression and began skipping classes again. He often filled his time with watching films. “At Harvard I became so fascinated with movies. This actually sounds made up as I say it, but I think I saw a movie every day I was at Harvard,” he says. This love of films has informed a number of Durang’s plays and characters, including the manic housewife Luella, who uses movies and theater as a form of escapism.

In the summer of his junior year, Durang challenged his self-defeating behavior again. He got a job as a tutor and stayed in Cambridge in order to make up a poetry class he had failed the previous semester. “I fixed something,” Durang says. He cites this newfound confidence and his therapy at Harvard as instrumental to his upturn. Overcoming the writer’s block that plagued his earlier undergraduate years, Durang finally had his work performed at Harvard. “The Greatest Musical Ever Sung,” a spin on the greatest story ever told—the life and death of Jesus—was performed at his upperclassman house, Dunster. It received a positive review in The Harvard Crimson, though some students did not approve of the poster, which featured a pregnant Virgin Mary and a winking dove. Letters were signed against the play due to its irreverent tone. A Jesuit priest even wrote a letter to The Harvard Crimson calling Durang “a pig trampling in a sanctuary.”

The moral outrage provoked by “Greatest Musical” was only the beginning. Durang’s next play, “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe,” would gain him admission to a seminar with his favorite Harvard professor, playwright and scholar William Alfred, and Yale Drama School. But it also earned Durang biting criticism from those who felt his writing was senselessly cruel. “Some of my earlier plays really scared people,” he says.

BLACK AND BLUE COMEDY

“Nature and Purpose” was inspired by an actual acquaintance of Durang’s mother: a Catholic housewife in her twenties with five children whose husband forced her to have sex with him while he was drunk. “She went to a parish priest and said, ‘May I have birth control in case he rapes me?’ The priest was very nice, thought about it, and said no,” Durang says. “That was my idea of hell: her life.”

The world of the play’s protagonist, the constantly battered and belittled Eleanor, does resemble hell. “It was my version of the Book of Job but obviously very non-realistic and very gleeful, which is really strange. But I felt this enormous relief because there is such a distance from what I was writing,” Durang says. “You feel like, ‘I’ve made something sense out of something that was chaos.’” Though Eleanor’s suffering disturbed some, the absurdist tone makes this personal destruction palatable, if not entertaining.

Nicholas Martin, the director of “Vanya” who has worked with Durang on two of his other play premieres, believes that this tonality makes Durang a theatrical pioneer. “I feel like what Chris did along with John Guare and to some degree Albert Innaurato was to begin the American tradition of theater of the absurd, which began in France with Beckett and Ionesco,” Martin says. “I’m not sure they get yet the kind of recognition for starting the style of theater and kind of play that rivaled those European writers in terms of the balance of savagery and hilarity and the balance of reality and satire.”

This style is not for the faint of heart; though the plays can pivot from pitch-black to zany heights in an instant, they are still grounded in reality. “In Chris’ plays, you know, you can’t just have wacky sets and cartoon characters as I’ve often seen done. They won’t work that way,” Martin says. According to the director, embracing the—at times gleeful—violence is necessary. “You still have to have the savagery of Chris available to you,” he says. “It’s a tightrope in any of his plays.”

FLOORED HEART

When the tightrope is walked, Durang’s tone can achieve an accurate description of reality’s chaos. “Insanity is away of coping in this very harsh world. And I think it’s Chris’ way of getting truths out, by being very insane and funny,” says actress Kristine Nielsen, who has acted in three of Durang’s plays and currently stars in “Vanya” as Sonia. “The pain of the character is funny because it’s a recognizable pain we all have in trying to cope.”

I can still recall the first time I recognized this pain, to put it in Nielsen’s terms. In 2008, I saw Durang’s most famous play, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.” Its genre-breaking marriage of hilarity and heartbreak will always remind me of moments in my life when I have wanted to laugh at how the answer to the question “Can this get worse?” is yes.

When he wrote “Bette and Boo,” Durang was a graduate student at Yale staying at Edward Albee’s residence for young writers. The play started as a writing exercise. Fellow student Innaurato recommended Durang write about his family. He did, but he intended it only to be an exercise and didn’t even change the names. Durang showed the play, at the time a one-act, to his professor Howard Stein, who in turn showed it to a director at the Yale School of Drama, who wanted to stage it. Durang consented and changed some of the names. He thought his family, based in New Jersey, would never hear about the New Haven production.

But Durang’s mother heard about a subsequent production in Princeton, New Jersey. His parents were always supportive of his writing, but Durang had his reservations about her seeing it. It’s not hard to understand why—the play is the most autobiographical of his works, telling the story of his parents’ relationship, his own upbringing, and his mother’s stillbirths. “When I was thinking about writing about the deaths of these children, I thought, if one wrote a serious dead-on version, it would seem like a TV movie. So I just found myself with no real thought to it, the doctor came in and dropped it. Then he gets to say, ‘Oh no, it’s not dead,’ which allows the audience to get over that shock the first time. The second time, when the baby now actually is dead, the audience laughs. But then they have a discussion about why it is dead,” Durang says.

The third and the fourth are not intended to be humorous. The sound of each “baby”—the Roundabout production employed sandbags to amplify the thud—hitting the stage registered more in my chest than my ears. Innocent Bette’s grief transforms her from zany to delirious. Her gravy-vacuuming, alcoholic husband Boo—the actual nickname of Durang’s father—fares no better. The only living child, Matt, attempts to a live a normal life between the thuds of each stillborn and watches the marriage disintegrate.

Durang’s mother wanted to see the play even after he showed her the script. She told Durang after the show that she enjoyed it. “She said, ‘I think you’re a little easy on your father. But on the other hand, he was sweet.’… And then she said, ‘But I think you got the rest of your family exactly right,’ which made me really happy because her family in particular always lived in terror of ‘Marriage of Bette and Boo,’” Durang says. His mother died of cancer before the full-length version was produced, making Durang especially grateful for her blessing.

In 1985, Durang had a personal and artistic breakthrough. He had acted in his own plays before, but given the autobiographical content Durang made a noteworthy decision to act in the play’s debut, directed by Jerry Zaks. He chose the role of Matt, his obvious stand-in. The play is fictionalized, but some scenes are lifted directly from his life. “The first preview while I was speaking, my voice choked up,” says Durang. “I was so startled. It had not happened in rehearsal at all.… I did ask Jerry Zaks if that was okay. He said, ‘That’s okay as long as you don’t stop. You have to keep going.’ It didn’t happen all the time. But that was powerful.”

I wasn’t alive to see that incarnation of “Bette and Boo,” to watch Durang essentially reenact crucial moments of his life under professional lights, uttering perfect, preassembled words. To write the contents of one’s life, let alone speak them in front of others under a thin veil of fiction, is terrifying to an emerging playwright such as myself. But this goes beyond therapy or catharsis for Durang’s sake. There was something larger at work when Durang spoke to the audience directly as Matt and said, “Bette passed into death, and is with God. She is in heaven where she has been reunited with the four dead babies, and where she waits for Boo, and for Bonnie Wilson, and Emily, and Pooh Bear and Eeyore, and Kanga and Roo; and for me.”

“I found his performance in that so affecting that I didn’t really talk about it much with him,” Martin says. “The end of that play affected me more than almost anything I had seen in that period of my life.”

HOW TO END IT ALL

Durang tries to recall which character from “The Canterbury Tales” he chose for an assignment he had to make up during his rough patches at Harvard.

“Knowing you, it had to be the Wife of Bath,” I say.

He replies with a grin, “You’re right.  You’re absolutely right.” (I silently rejoice at my nerdy feat.)

At some plot point between his academic struggles and this moment in Utopia Diner, the Broadway playwright and co-director of the Juilliard playwriting program—to which I may someday apply—fleshed out his dark, brutal streak and tempered it. “I do think in my early plays I had a very nihilistic view of life, and it really came out an awful lot in my plays,” Durang says. “So the people who either felt the same or just went along for the ride liked it, but other people felt disturbed while the play didn’t actually say, ‘Yes I know this is serious.’ So that part of me seems gone now.”

After our interview, Durang—a self-described “agnostic question-mark” even after all he has been through and all the Catholic jokes—will go home to his house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and his partner of over 20 years, John Augustine. But before he does, I have to ask him about the optimistic ending of a recent work that gives me the most trouble.

“Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” follows Felicity, a young woman deeply fearful of the dangerous stranger, Zamir, whom she married while possibly drugged the night before. Felicity’s crackpot conservative father maims Zamir, who is suspected of terrorism, but Durang has the characters erase prior events in order to get a chance at a happy ending. “I thought there is no way I can keep going in this direction without this play being a downer,” he says. “So Felicity says, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ and he says, ‘In the play or in life?’ and she says both. And then I decided I wanted to go back and say, ‘What could we do so this doesn’t happen?’”

When I saw The Public Theater’s production of the play, I felt cheated by how Durang had the characters undo prior events in order to get a chance at a happy ending. But in context of the arc of the Durang’s career, if not his life, it all makes sense. There is a type of courage in this newfound optimism. Durang, who still possesses his Catholic schoolboy manners even if he writes characters who stuff hedgehogs up their vaginas, does not cite a single personal event as responsible for this transition. And while Durang’s life does not follow the solid plot structure plays do, a lifetime of self-exploration—performing in “Bette and Boo,” overcoming the trauma of his childhood, and decades of therapy—all contribute to the newly bright light being cast on Durang’s dark matter.

He asks me whether mental health services are still free at Harvard. I reply that I believe they are.  “I can’t tell you how helpful I found talk therapy,” Durang says. “I still get depressed sometimes but that isn’t my life at all.”

—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at hcuccinello@college.harvard.edu.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," written by Christopher Durang and directed by Nicholas Martin, runs through January 13 at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City.

30 dollar tickets are available for 21-35 year olds through LincTix, a discount ticket program; see www.lct.org for more details.

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